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112 firms on list -- 94 of them Israel; 18 foreign

Israel freezes ties with UN rights chief after release of settlement blacklist

FM Israel Katz says he ordered ‘exceptional and harsh measure’ in retaliation for Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s office promoting the anti-Israel boycott movement

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaks in Geneva, March 20, 2019. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speaks in Geneva, March 20, 2019. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

Israel is suspending its ties with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday, several hours after the UN body published a list of 112 companies that do business in West Bank settlements.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz’s office said he ordered the “exceptional and harsh measure” in retaliation for Michelle Bachelet’s office “serving the BDS campaign,” referring to the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

Katz intends to protect the companies operating in Israel, his office stated.

It was not immediately clear what practical implications the decision would have. The commissioner’s office has representatives stationed in Israel, but they are not known to enjoy good working relations with Israeli diplomats. Officials in Jerusalem on Wednesday evening merely said that any requests they may have will not be answered as of today.

Earlier on Wednesday, the commission unexpectedly released the so-called blacklist, which had been in the making since March 2016, when the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for a database of companies promoting or maintaining Israeli settlements.

Israeli reacted angrily to the publication of the blacklist, denouncing the UN body responsible for compiling it and vowing to protect Israeli financial interests. The Palestinians, meanwhile, celebrated a “victory for international law.”

Ninety-four of the 112 companies on the list are Israeli, including all major banks, state-owned transportation companies Egged and Israel Railways Corporation, and telecommunications giants Bezeq, HOT and Cellcom. It also lists medium-size companies such as restaurant chain Café Café and Angel Bakeries.

Of the 18 that are foreign, six are based in the US, four in the Netherlands, three in the UK, three in France, and one each in Luxembourg and Thailand. They include Motorola, Airbnb, Trip Advisor, Expedia and General Mills (all from the US), Alstom (from France) and Greenkote (from the UK).

Katz, in an earlier statement, had called the list’s publication the “ultimate surrender” to pressure from countries that seek to hurt Israel. He claimed that by publishing the list, the Human Rights Council joined the anti-Israel boycott movement, but stressed that the database is not legally binding.

“The commissioner’s decision to continue to pursue an anti-Israel stance at the UN Human Rights Council is a stain on the office of the UN Commissioner and on human rights itself. With this announcement, the commissioner has become a partner and tool of the boycott movement, despite the ‘blacklist’ not having any tangible legal implication,” he said.

The Human Rights Council consists of countries that “do not know the meaning of human rights,” the foreign minister went on. “Since its establishment, the council has not taken a single meaningful step towards the preservation of human rights, but has rather served to protect some of the most discriminatory regimes in the world.”

By agreeing to publish the list, Bachelet “wasted an opportunity to preserve the dignity of the UN and salvage what was left of the council and commission’s integrity,” Katz said, threatening “serious implications” for Israel’s future relations with these institutions.

“The State of Israel will not tolerate this discriminatory anti-Israel policy, and will take action to prevent the implementation of these kinds of decisions,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also slammed the council and similarly vowed to fight the database.

“Whoever boycotts us will be boycotted. The UN Human Rights Council is a biased body that is devoid of influence,” he said.

“Not for nothing have I already ordered the severing of ties with it. It was also not for nothing that the American administration has taken this step together with us,” he added, referring to the Trump administration’s June 2018 decision to leave the council, citing its “chronic bias against Israel.”

Israel has never been a member of the council.

“In recent years, we have promoted laws in most US states, which determine that strong action is to be taken against whoever tries to boycott Israel. Therefore, this body is unimportant,” Netanyahu went on. “Instead of the organization dealing with human rights, it only tries to disparage Israel. We strongly reject this contemptible effort.”

President Reuven Rivlin responded to the database published Wednesday by reading out a long list of Israeli companies mentioned on the list, and encouraging Israelis to support them.

President Rivlin speak at his Jerusalem residence, February 12, 2020 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

“I am proud that these are Israeli businesses, patriots who contribute to Israeli society, to economy and to peace. Although we do not promote private businesses here in this house, when Israeli businesses are under the threat of boycott, we will stand with them,” he said during an event at his official Jerusalem residence.

“Boycotting Israeli companies does not advance the cause of peace and does not build confidence between the sides. We call on our friends around the world to speak out against this shameful initiative which reminds us of dark periods in our history,” he said.

The blacklist also names 18 international enterprises, such as Motorola, Airbnb, Trip Advisor, Expedia and General Mills (all from the US), Alstom (from France) Greenkote (from the UK) and a handful of companies from the Netherlands and Thailand.

Businesses may ask to be delisted if they can prove that they no longer provide material support to Israeli settlements, Bachelet’s office said Wednesday. The list will be updated annually.

“Another disgraceful decision by the Human Rights Council, which proves once again the UN’s consistent anti-Semitism and Israel-hatred,” said Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, who is in charge of fighting boycotts and so-called delegitimization of Israel.

“The only achievement of the publication of the blacklist is that it will hurt the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinians who coexist and cooperate with Israelis on a daily basis in Judea and Samaria,” he said, using the Biblical terms for the West Bank.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen said the blacklist could leave “thousands of Palestinians unemployed,” accusing the Geneva-based council of “modern anti-Semitism.”

De facto opposition leader Benny Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party, also decried the database. “This is a dark day for human rights. The UN Human Rights Council has lost touch with reality,” he said.

Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riyad al-Malki speaks during a press conference at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday May 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, welcomed the list and said it will go after companies that are included on it.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for companies to shutter their operations in the settlements.

“We will pursue the companies listed in the report legally through international legal institutions and through the courts in their countries for their role in violating human rights,” Shtayyeh said, according to the PA’s official Wafa news agency.

“We will demand compensation for illegally using our occupied lands and for engaging in economic activity in our lands without submitting to Palestinian laws and paying taxes,” he added, suggesting that companies could move to areas controlled by the PA to avoid any potential retribution.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki called the publication of the list “a victory for international law.”

In March 2016, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed a resolution requesting the compilation of a database listing “activities that raised particular human rights concerns” in the Palestinian territories. Such activities were defined as providing material and services that would support the expansion of, or help “maintain,” Israel settlements.

Other activities that got companies on the list include the use of the West Bank’s natural resources “in particular water and land,” the pollution of Palestinian villages and “captivity of the Palestinian financial and economic markets, as well as practices that disadvantage Palestinian enterprises, including through restrictions on movement, administrative and legal constraints.”

Israel, the US and the UK for years tried to block the publication of the blacklist. Many other countries were also opposed to releasing it. It was unclear why it was published this week. Israeli diplomatic officials on Wednesday said they were only given one hour warning but the document was released.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet listens during a meeting with Venezuela’s Education Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz, at the Foreign Ministry in Caracas, Venezuela, June 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

“I am conscious this issue has been, and will continue to be, highly contentious,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Bachelet.

“However, after an extensive and meticulous review process, we are satisfied this fact-based report reflects the serious consideration that has been given to this unprecedented and highly complex mandate, and that it responds appropriately to the Human Rights Council’s request contained in resolution 31/36,” she said, referring to the council resolution that asked for the report.

According to Israeli officials, Bachelet consistently refused to meet with Israeli diplomats to discuss the blacklist.

The database’s publication this week marks a major setback for Israel’s settlement movement, coming only three months after the European Court of Justice ruled that the labeling regime for Israeli products from the West Bank is legally binding.

The Yesha Council umbrella group issued a statement Wednesday accusing the Human Rights Council of anti-Semitism and urging Israeli citizens to make special efforts to purchase goods made in the settlements.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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